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Despite most of the members hailing from the United States, Kamelot rose to prominence in the early 2000's as one of the leading forces in the Europower style, alongside bands like Nightwish, DragonForce, and Rhapsody (Of Fire). However, rather than continue to sing about dragons and faeries and wizards, as did most of their fellow bands, Kamelot opted to tackle more serious personal themes beginning with their 2003 release, Epica, the first part of a two-part concept that took inspiration from Goethe's Faust, following the protagonist Ariel as he decided to pursue a life dedicated to seeking knowledge, and reaping the consequences thereof. Unlike most other concept albums I've heard, Epica presents an extremely clear narrative, both emotionally and objectively, through the music and the lyrics together; it has probably the most clear progression I've yet to hear in an album, in addition to the fact that the riffs, keyboards, and of course Khan's vocals are all fantastic. This is undeniably Kamelot's best effort, and one of the very best things I've yet to hear from the Europower scene, trailing only power metal giants Blind Guardian in quality.
One of Kamelot's greatest strengths is that they've always had an incredibly strong knack for melodic sensibility, creating cohesive songs by building simplistic melodies on top of each other to create complex songs, with around 3 or 4 different melodies going on simultaneously (lead guitar, vocals, keyboards, rhythm guitar) that harmonize synergistically. Their other primary strength, of course, is the legendary Roy Khan, formerly of Conception. Sounding like no one else in power metal, operatically trained but metal-savvy, with a fantastic range and the ability to seamlessly transition among various emotions, Khan is one of the absolute best singers in all of power metal, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Midnight and David DeFeis. On Epica, Khan manages to handle both the characters of Ariel, the aforementioned protagonist, and Mephisto/Mephistopheles, the Satan-esque antagonist who tempts Ariel with promises of knowledge, women, and immortality. He is assisted vocally only on a few occasions by guitarist Thom Youngblood's wife, Mari, who takes on the role of Ariel's initial love interest, Helena.
Musically, the songs are extremely solid and consistent; this is an album that can and should be listened to all the way through. Despite containing more ballads than the average metal album, they prove themselves masters of every style they attempt, transitioning flawlessly from glorious or ominous power metal to sweet ballads; they definitely aren't suffering from what I like to call Operation: Mindcrime syndrome here. Being that the album is so strong, it's actually a bit difficult to pick out specific highlights, but there definitely are some points that shine brighter than others. I cite here the beautiful duet between Khan and Mari in "Center of the Universe", which never fails to have a calming effect on me, making me feel completely at peace, at least for a few moments. The Gregorian-style chant in "Edge of Paradise" is another such moment, as Khan croons amazingly in the background, as is the immensely catchy, moving chorus of "Wander". Thereafter, the album takes an ever so slight dip in quality, with "Descent of the Archangel" and "A Feast for the Vain" being not quite as good as the first few songs, but still quite sufficient, with Khan playing the part of Mephisto with ease.
The album picks back up to its previous quality with "On the Coldest Winter Night", perfectly evoking feelings of cold and desolation, with a beautiful main riff and a moving acoustic bass, not to mention Khan's familiarly fantastic performance. "Lost and Damned" is another highlight of the album, with out-of-this-world leads and a great chorus. "Helena's Theme" and "The Mourning After" bring the album to its second and final slight dip in quality, while "III Ways to Epica" ties things up wonderfully, quite possibly the best song here, with an absurdly good chorus and a bridge that's somehow even better.
Lyrically, the album is just as good, something that can't often be said of power metal, with a clear story as well as catchy, profound lines like "Maybe God cannot remedy our souls if he tried...", fun revelry with Mephisto, illustrated by lines like "so adorable, all these women from my fantasies", and turning points in the story, demonstrated by lines such as, "Leave me behind, don't look back...'cause deep within you know I'm lost and damned!" Overall, this album leaves very little to be desired, sending the listener on an exciting and immersing emotional roller coaster straight from the one and only Roy Khan. If you get a chance to hear this, do so - I don't care what kind of music you like, this is a masterpiece.